Samuel Davies, Champion of Liberty, Part Two

The Revolutionary War (1776-1783)

There were two other events that happened after the death of Samuel Davies (February 4, 1761) in which he played an indirect, but very close part. The first of those events was the Revolutionary War. That war has been called the ‘Presbyterian Rebellion’ because most of the leading voices in it were Presbyterians. That was certainly true of Patrick Henry (1736-1799) whose immortal words, “Give me liberty or give me death!” are well-known throughout the world even today. As I was preparing my speech for the three hundredth anniversary celebration of Samuel Davies’ birth on November 3, 2023, my wife and I went to lunch at a local restaurant. There was a young man there on that occasion who was wearing a shirt with Henry’s words on the front of it. Henry was a Presbyterian and had been a member of Davies’ church, Polegreen Presbyterian Church, from the very beginning, Henry’s mother was a daughter of one of Davies’ elders in that church and she drove him to the worship service in her horse drawn buggy every Lord’s Day from 1748 until his marriage in 1755. On the ride back home, Henry had to recite as much of the sermon as he could remember. It was in those exercises that the oratorical skills of Henry were developed and refined. As an adult, he referred to Davies as the greatest orator he ever heard. 

The connection of Davies with the Revolutionary War is two-fold. First, there is the connection through Henry who would have heard the various war sermons of Davies in the 1750’s when the Virginian parson was rallying the citizens to a sense of their imminent danger with that French and Indian War. Davies never made a statement that exactly parallels Henry’s famous words before the Virginia House of Burgesses on March 23, 1775, but he said similar things. He talked about fighting for “life and liberty.” He warned of the loss of both religious and pollical freedom; the loss of life to the brutal attacks of the Indians; and, the necessity of fighting valiantly for those things that should not be lost without a fight. When Henry stood before the gathered body in St. John’s Church (known then as Henrico Parish Church) in Richmond, Virginia, the whole cause of the Revolutionary War was in the balance. The ensuing vote passed only by four votes. Either Henry swayed at least four people to vote on his side of the issue or his speech does not deserve to be called one of the most important speeches in the history of the world. Henry’s speech was the deciding factor in that vote, without a doubt. Those present there that day certainly considered it to be so and history has agreed. Samuel Davies was not alive on that day in 1775, but his words two decades earlier inspired the one who championed that day. Without Samuel Davies, would there have been a Patrick Henry to rally Virginians? Maybe, but it is doubtful.

The second connection of Davies with the Revolutionary War is with his many efforts to raise militias for the French and Indian War. That earlier war had caused the British government to incur a great debt which they had to repay to the banks who had loaned them money. It resulted in many new taxes. The British Parliament decided that it was the right thing to do to get the Colonists to repay those debts instead of asking British citizens to do so. Thus, the British government instituted a number of new taxes on the colonies—tea tax, paper tax, stamp tax, and, basically, a tax on anything that was imported from the British. The tea tax was assumed to be a tax which the Colonists would gladly pay since the price of tea was lowered. Yet, the Colonists rebelled with ship loads of tea being dumped into the Boston harbor by angry Massachusetts citizens on December 16, 1773. Their rallying cry was, “No tax without representation.” The British Parliament responded by passing four laws called the Coercive Acts of 1774 and shutting down Boston Harbor until the cost of all of the three hundred and forty chests of East India tea were paid. It was a very tense time for both the British and the colony of Massachusetts. 

Meanwhile, the other colonies were somewhat indifferent to the matter of armed conflict with the British until Henry’s famous speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses. Virginia was the largest of the colonies and they were the first colony to side with Massachusetts in what became the Revolutionary War. Paul Revere’s midnight ride took place less than a month later on April 18, 1775—not enough time for the word to get back to Great Britain and for the British to send troops to Massachusetts. War was not started by Henry’s speech. Rather, Virginia joined the side of Massachusetts and promised to fight with her in the coming conflict. Without Virginia’s aid to Massachusetts, the rebellion by Massachusetts probably would have been quickly quelled by the British. Thus, the American colonies would have remained vassal states to the British crown. Davies saw clearly the connection between spiritual or religious freedom and political freedom. Patrick Henry captured that same sentiment from his minister and conveyed it to his fellow legislators in Richmond. There is one important point that must not be overlooked concerning that action of the House of Burgesses. That body had been disbanded by the British government after the Boston tea party in an effort to force the colonies to submit. The Virginia House of Burgesses met in a church in Richmond because they could not meet in Williamsburg, the Capitol city. Their meeting on March 23, 1775 was illegal, therefore. Though illegal, it was certainly warranted and the right thing to do. There are many times when the right of protest against tyranny and subjugation is the right thing to do and no government on earth—not even ecclesiastical courts—can overrule those fundamental rights of all mankind. A Virginian, Patrick Henry, gave the most important speech for that revolutionary cause. A Virginian, George Washington, became the general for all the efforts of the colonists in that struggle. Without Davies, would either of those things have happened? Perhaps. Maybe. But not likely. Great events are preceded by great ideas. The ideas behind the Revolutionary War came from Samuel Davies.   

Emancipation of Slaves

The final matter in which Samuel Davies played a close and important, but indirect role was the matter of the African slave trade. Throughout his ministry, Davies championed the cause of the slaves in every way that he could. He taught them to read and write in his own kitchen. He procured for them various hymnbooks and they were often gathered in his kitchen singing hymns into the wee hours of the morning on Saturday evenings. The song, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart” was composed by some of the slaves who gathered there. He wrote pamphlets and preached sermons on the proper conduct of masters to their slaves, especially encouraging slave owners to allow them to worship on the Lord’s Day. Davies also brought them into his own church as members and considered that aspect of his ministry as a great blessing to them and to the Church.   

One of Davies’ elders in Hanover, Virginia was a farmer named David Rice who was one of the few men farmers during that period who did not use slaves. Rice was always poor as a result, but he was convinced his position was correct. When Davies left Virginia in 1759 to become the President of the College of New Jersey in Princeton, Rice’s son, David Rice, Jr., followed him there and trained for the ministry. After his graduation, Rice returned to Virginia where he was ordained as an evangelist in 1762 by Hanover Presbytery and later became pastor of the Polegreen Presbyterian Church. He was only there a few years when an old dispute broke out with some elders that had formerly been a matter of great disagreement between them and Davies over the issue of slavery. While the substance of that dispute is not known any further, it was obviously over the matter of their emancipation. Rice himself said that all the wisdom of that age could not seem to resolve that issue but that someday a national conflict would settle it. That conflict that ultimately settled it was the American Civil War. 

Slavery is an issue that has marred the American experiment in numerous ways. The world would have been better if the institution of slavery had never existed anywhere in the world. When Patrick Henry stood before the House of Burgesses in1775, he referred to slavery in his famous speech. His words were in reference to fighting to not be slaves to the British crown, but there could have been other thoughts in his mind as well. The issue of slavery cannot exist with freedom. There is no freedom where any group of people are enslaved to others. Such freedom is partial and hypocritical. Davies saw that. Henry saw that. And, the Civil War is a monument to the injustice of such slavery. I am a southerner to the core of my being, but I wish that slavery in this country had never existed. Such slavery conflicted with the nation that our founding fathers wanted to build—a Christian nation with liberty and justice for all. 

Samuel Davies, like George Whitefield before him, fought for the humane treatment of slaves. That was the beginning of the struggle for the slaves. Their eventual emancipation and full participation in the great American dream was the ultimate goal. A few decades before William Wilberforce began his great work in Great Britain for emancipation and the end of the slave trade, Davies was working in Virginia towards the same goal. Sadly, Virginia, which had been on the right side of so many issues, was not on the right side of this matter in the beginning. Virginia was not the first state to declare war against the Union. That distinction belongs to South Carolina. Virginia followed five days later and was the eighth state to become Confederate. If Davies had been alive, or even if Henry had been, I am sure either or both of them would have spoken out for the emancipation of the slaves. A century had passed  since Davies’ death and his voice was sadly no longer remembered on this matter. Oh, that it had been! 


         Each of these issues Davies confronted are connected. Davies’ fight for religious toleration led to his championing the cause of the colonists in the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War then resulted in the Revolutionary War where the issue was political freedom. Davies’ words at Hanover courthouse were the basis of Patrick Henry’s famous words: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Those are some of the most famous words in the history of mankind. That quest for political freedom resulted in the fight for the freeing of the slaves—no person left behind in that quest for freedom. Davies has been forgotten by our modern world. Let us forget him no more. (For more information, my biography Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia can be purchased through Amazon).  

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL

Please send any donations to: Vanguard Presbytery, PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540

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